The ACC's Atlantic Division is one of the most competitive divisions in college football. The race for the Atlantic crown usually involves several teams and is not decided until the final weeks of the season. For these reasons, it is also a hard division to predict, but we'll give it a shot.
1. Florida State
I'm not really buying the hype on Florida State so much as I am not sold on anybody else in this division. The expectations have been set high for starting quarterback E.J. Manuel based on a few solid performances as Christian Ponder's backup the last two seasons. The problem is that all of Manuel's success has been in home and neutral-site games. Nobody knows how he will perform in a hostile road setting. I'm guessing not as well. With that said, he is still one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the conference and possibly the most talented. The Seminoles' three-headed monster at tailback, led by Chris Thompson, gives them easily the deepest backfield in the conference. The defense should improve as it returns eight starters, including the entire secondary. This isn't a very confident first-place pick, but at this point, Florida State has the most answers of any team in this division.
There is no doubt that Clemson has enough talent to win this division. A top-ten recruiting class will likely fill the voids the Tigers' had at skill positions last year, and Chad Morris brings in a new high-powered offensive attack to utilize the team's weapons. Andre Ellington is arguably the best running back in the conference if he stays healthy. The defense shouldn't suffer much of a drop-off from last year, but there are depth concerns at defensive tackle and in the secondary. Clemson's success will undoubtedly hinge on Tajh Boyd's effectiveness at quarterback. If he lives up to his billing (four-star recruit in 2009), Clemson could easily beat out Florida State to win the Atlantic. A win in a Sept. 24 home date with the Seminoles could propel the Tigers to the top of the division.
The 3, 4 and 5 spots in this division are almost interchangeable in my mind, but we'll give Maryland the edge because of quarterback play. Danny O'Brien is probably the best signal-caller in the conference, but he'll have to replicate last-year's efforts without top target Torrey Smith, who is now in the NFL. He does have a good weapon at running back in Davin Meggett that will help take some pressure off of him. The defense only returns five starters, but veteran Kenny Tate will be anchoring the unit at his new Star linebacker position. The school made a good hire in new coach Randy Edsall after throwing reigning ACC coach of the year Ralph Friedgen under the bus. Maryland should be a good team this year, but they simply don't have the firepower to compete for a conference championship.
4. North Carolina State
The Wolfpack's hopes for this season took a hit when they said thanks-but-no-thanks to returning All-ACC quarterback Russell Wilson, who is now at Wisconsin. Mike Glennon will take over under center in hopes of filling the huge void Wilson left behind. Mustafa Greene is a nice weapon at running back, but the receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired. Tight end George Bryan may be the best in the conference and will likely be Glennon's top passing target. State returns seven starters on defense, including stud defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy and secondary leader Earl Wolff. The Wolfpack will win some games, but it's tough to see them repeating last year's success without Wilson at the helm.
5. Boston College
Year after year, Boston College puts together a tough, solid, competitive team. This year is no different. Montel Harris is a workhorse at running back and should finish the season as the ACC's all-time leading rusher. Quarterback Chase Rettig got thrown to the lions as a freshman, but he should be a year wiser, and better, for it. He's got a good corps of receivers to throw to, led by Colin Larmond Jr., who returns from an ACL tear last season. The defense is headlined by Luke Kuechly, who might be the best pure tackler in NCAA history (183 tackles in 2010). His right-hand man, Kevin Pierre-Louis, is no slouch either. Boston College's biggest problem this year, in all honesty, is a brutal road schedule. Because of this, The Eagles' record may not be very indicative of how good they actually are.
6. Wake Forest
This is where the drop-off happens. The first five teams in these rankings could conceivably finish in any number of orders, but come season's end, you will find the Deacons at the bottom. They will certainly improve from last year, however. It probably just won't show in their final record. Quarterback Tanner Price, like Rettig, gained valuable experience last year as a freshman and should be able to make more plays this year. Josh Harris is a future star at running back, and an offensive line that returns four of five starters should be able to protect Price well enough. The defense should also improve with Kyle Wilber rushing the passer and Kenny Okoro in coverage. Wake Forest will be competitive this year, but it won't show in the win column.